“Excellent Irish Entertainment” on Irish Screens for St Patrick’s Day 1920

I planned to research and write this blog in mid-March 2020 because it is about Irish cinema in March 1920 and particularly the films released for that year’s St Patrick’s Day (17 March). But things didn’t turn out as planned. I do a significant part of the research for these blogs on newspapers and archive materials at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), the Mothership. The COVID crisis closed the NLI to researchers in the crucial week from 12 March, and I have deferred this blog a long time in the hopes of a reopening of the library and access to my own office and books, but I am now finally finishing it under quarantine conditions. I have always used online sources alongside printed ones in these blogs, but in this case, they are almost the only sources. Expect some revision later, but in the meantime, I especially welcome comments on this blog to correct the errors and fill in some of the gaps.

Ira Allen as St Patrick in Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick. Standard 17 Mar. 1961: 1.

St Patrick’s Day and the week in which it fell were often the occasion for Irish cinemas to show films with Irish content of some kind, but St Patrick’s week 1920 uniquely saw the premieres of two new indigenously produced feature films, Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick (Ireland: General Film Supply, 1920) and Rosaleen Dhu (Ireland: Celtic, 1920)), albeit that there is some doubt about the latter premiere. Neither of these films was made by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI), which had dominated the production of indigenous fiction films since its founding in 1916 and whose awaited production of Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn was being held for a symbolically significant late April release coinciding with the fourth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Spring 1920 was indeed a rich one for new Irish features.

The cover of John Denvir’s play Rosaleen Dhu, which was published in his pamphlet series Denvir’s Irish Penny Library: Google Books.

Of the St Patrick’s Day releases, Aimsir Padraig (I will use this shortened form of the title from now on) is today by far the better known, largely because it still survives and has been shown on such occasions as the 2017 St Patrick’s Festival at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute with live accompaniment. Directed and starring Bray, Co. Wicklow barber William J. Power based on the eponymous 1874 play by John Denvir, Rosaleen Dhu is the more obscure film because it is believed lost and as a result, nobody has seen it in nearly a century, but it has received attention from several historians and critics of Irish cinema, including most recently Debbie Ging, who offers insights into the film’s gender dynamics based on her analysis of the synopsis published in Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography (Rockett 9 and online). Paraphrasing Rockett’s pithy synopsis, Ging observes that the film tells the story of how

“a young Fenian emigrates after being evicted from his home during the Land Wars. He joins the French Foreign Legion and marries a local woman in Algeria, only to discover on his return to Ireland that his bride is the kidnapped heiress of an Irish estate. His masculine virility is thus recouped through his own existential actions, while the matter of wealth and property ownership is taken care of by forces beyond his control. (Ging 44.)

So although Rosaleen Dhu is a relatively obscure lost Irish film, it is still being used in some very interesting contemporary work. Something also might be said about the film’s own Orientalist indulgence in colonial adventuring, and particularly the representation of Algeria, a feature unique in Irish film and one that caught the attention of the reviewer in the December 1919 issue of Ireland’s first film magazine Irish Limelight. “The plot centr[es] chiefly around the love affair of a most captivating young Irishman,” s/he reveals.

As a result of the machinations of the villain of the piece, the hero has to take flight from Ireland, and the final phases of the picture depicts most realistic and highly exciting incidents in Algiers, where exciting encounters, captures and rescues are the order of the day.

Our hero finds his bride, and finally all return to a happier Ireland, the villain having met with his just deserts. (“Celtic Film Company’s ‘Rosaleen Dhu.””)

It is striking that the Limelight writer doesn’t describe the hero – Stephen Burke, as in Denvir’s play – as a Fenian, a member of the secret Irish republican organization responsible for notable revolutionary actions in the 1850s and 1860s. Indeed, s/he very carefully frames the political context in which the action takes place by observing that it is a “delightful portrait of Irish life in the middle of the last century, [portraying] in the most faithful manner the exciting phases of the lives of the people in the early days of the Land War.” That setting would have been anachronistic for a faithful adaptation of Denvir’s play, which had been published five years before the Land War began in 1879. Nevertheless, having located the film in the context of a key Irish political struggle, the reviewer disavows any substantial ideological content, commenting that “happily anything that could be objectionable in the way of political controversy or class hatred is completely absent from the picture.” The frequency with which statements like this formed part of the contemporary commentary on the film suggests that they were part of the film itself, perhaps as introductory intertitles, and/or travelled with it as part of the material the producers provided for the press. As has been noted here a number of times, producers of Irish films denied that they were politically partisan in order to avoid censorship. This seeming neutrality was often a conservative political accommodationism, as it had been in the Irish play, the genre of 19th-century melodrama to which Denvir’s play belonged and of which the work of Dion Boucicault is the best remembered. And as in the case of the Irish play, neutrality in both colonial and class politics was good for business in not alienating any sector of the potential audience. Nevertheless, as with Boucicault and other popular Irish dramatists, a seemingly conservatism overall could conceal but not wholly contain the presentation of radical ideas in the course of the play. In any event, stressing the “all Irishness” of the production may be as far as an Irish film could have gone to make a political point at a time when the Irish War of Independence was becoming increasingly violent. As the ad for the Sligo run put it: “All Irish Artists. All Irish Scenes. From an Irish Story. By an Irish Author.”

Ad for the premiere of Rosaleen Dhu at Sligo’s Town Hall Cinema on 17-18 March 1920. Sligo Champion 13 Mar. 1920: 4.

Indeed, this Sligo run at the Town Hall Cinema on 17-18 March 1920, seems to have been the public premiere. Although Rockett lists the premiere as 16 December 1919, this is likely the trade show at Dublin’s Carlton Cinema that the Limelight advertised for that day. Although the Sligo Town Hall management was not above making exaggerated claims about the exclusiveness of the films it showed, searches in the currently digitized newspapers yield no mentions of screenings in late 1919 and early 1920 before those in Sligo, the publicity for which claimed that it was the first run in Ireland. “The management of the Town Hall Cinema is to be congratulated on having secured for Sligo people the first exhibition in Ireland of the famous Irish film, ‘Rosaleen Dhu,’” a preview in the Sligo Champion declared. “It is interesting to note that the picture has been produced wholly in Ireland. The settings are principally laid amongst the beautiful mountains of Co. Wicklow, and the introduction of the Algerian desert sand scene provides an atmosphere of reality which makes the picture doubly interesting” (“‘Rosaleen Dhu’”). The lack of political controversy was also stressed in Sligo: “It is a picture of intensely human interest, free from any tinge of politics, and can be seen by all creeds and classes of Irish people with an interest which brings home to them real Irish life in every scene.”

The film remained faithful to the play, but as the mentions of Wicklow indicate, it was shot on the east coast and not on the West of Ireland locations mentioned in Denvir script. While the film’s Irish scenes still supposedly took place in Connemara – the play’s subtitle The Twelve Pins of Bin-a-Bola incorporates the English and Irish names of a Connemara mountain range – director and star William Power shot in scenic Wicklow locations that were within easy reach for him and his Bray-based collaborators. The most extensive synopsis of the film, published in the Nationalist and Leinster Times before a run at Carlow’s Cinema Palace in 1922, shows that Power altered the play only so that he could produce a coherent silent film from the dialogue-heavy play. The largest alteration, therefore, was the inclusion of a prologue showing how the villainous steward Mark Luttrell’s conspires with his henchman Ned Malone to murder landlord Sir Hugh Dillon, his wife and their daughter, Rosaleen Dhu, while on a voyage to Spain, but how Malone in bad conscience spares Rosaleen Dhu life and instead sells her to “Ben Mouza, an Arab Chief” (“Rosaleen Dhu”).

Most of what is known of Power’s filmmaking activities comes not from contemporary sources directly but from Padraig O’Fearail’s 1977 Irish Times article “When Films Were Made in Bray.” Some 57 years after the events, O’Fearail not only used 1919-20 local newspaper articles but also interviewed people who had been involved in the making of Rosaleen Dhu and the other films produced by Power’s Celtic Cinema Company. The accounts of Power’s young assistant Bob Tobin and his female lead Kitty Hart (formerly Scarff) allow O’Fearail to offer a vivid account of local filmmaking in Ireland as the 1910s became the 1920s.

Mac’s, or the Picture House, Quinsboro Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow was located in the town’s former Turkish baths. Mac himself – J.E. McDermott – is probably the man leaning against the façade. Irish Limelight August 1917: 16.

From his article we learn that Power was a barber working from a shop at 1 Novara Avenue in Bray, which became the production office during shooting, with barrels for processing film in its yard; that Tobin’s blind brother Matthew operated the camera at times when all that this required was for him to turn the handle moving the film through the camera at a steady pace; that Power’s first film was the one-reel comedy called Willy Scouts While Jessie Pouts; that Power collected Kitty, an experienced amateur actor, from her tobacconist’s job when the weather was good for filming; and that he died on 20 June 1920 from injuries sustained while shooting a racing scene at Leopardstown race course for An Irish Vendetta, his follow up to Rosaleen Dhu. O’Fearail is less interested in the exhibition of the film, merely quoting Bray native Christy Brien’s claim that it was shown at Mac’s in Bray at an unspecified date and speculating that it was screened at other cinemas in Wicklow and probably beyond.

Rosaleen Dhu’s Dublin premiere at the Rotunda; Evening Herald 1 May 1920: 5.

By the time of the Sligo premiere, the Irish film community would have known of the film from articles on it in the Limelight and Bioscope, but there were few advertised runs of the film in 1920. Among those few screenings were its Dublin and Belfast premieres. Tom Hughes shows that the Belfast premiere happened sometime in March or April as part of a series of Irish films at St Mary’s Hall, a church venue that had decided to run as a full-time cinema and booked the three new Irish films to launch the enterprise (Hughes 281-82). The Dublin premiere was later, at the Rotunda, where “packed houses witnessed the screening of the Irish-made film ‘Rosaleen Dhu’ when Mr. Kay reopened the Ro[tu]nda last week” (“Irish Notes” 13 May). Kay clearly saw that run as successful because he brought the film back for a three-day engagement beginning on 8 July 1920.

Extract from a Dublin high court case to establish the ownership of Rosaleen Dhu. Evening Herald 4 Jun 1921: 3.

Few other screenings are registered in 1920, which may not be surprising given Power’s unexpected death in June. This was not the end of the film’s screening life, however. The Celtic Film Company under whose name Power produced his films was a partnership involving 15 other Bray residents, and in April-June 1921, they sought to have their rights to all copies of the film and business to do with it asserted in the face of Ellen Power’s insistence that her husband owned the rights. She lost the case, and the company put the film back into circulation. It was subsequently shown – among other places, no doubt – in Skibbereen in August 1921, Cork city in October 1921 and Carlow in April 1922.

Ads for Dublin cinemas showing Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick in Dublin Evening Mail 15 Mar. 1920: 2.

Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick suffered none of Rosaleen Dhu’s struggles to make news in 1920. “Quite the most important feature of this year’s celebration of the National Holiday in the Irish Capital,” the Sligo Champion commented,

was the presentation, in picturized form, of the Life of St. Patrick – the National Apostle. This may seem rather an extravagant assertion, but when one considers the tremendous power for good or for evil possessed by the cinematograph, and when one sees the power being moulded by native talent in the service of purposes of national religious advancement, the success of the experiment becomes a matter of very grave concern. In the leading Dublin cinemas we are delighted to say the wonder film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick,’ has proved a tremendous success.” (“The Life of St. Patrick.”)

In Dublin itself, the Freeman’s Journal noted in a roundup of events for St Patrick’s Day that “there will be special matinee performances in the various city theatres; and the Irish film, “In the Days of St. Patrick,” will be screened in a number of cinema houses” (“Festival”).

Following its premieres not only in Dublin but also in Limerick and Derry during St Patrick’s week 1920, the film had subsequent runs in the weeks and months that followed, and enjoyed some distribution in Britain and the United States. Although Aimsir Padraig resembled Rosaleen Dhu in being a first feature for its production company, it enjoyed much wider exposure because that production company was Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which had been active in film production and distribution for much of the previous decade. As such, Whitten had well-established contacts in the press and in the film industry in Ireland and London, including a network of Irish cinemas that subscribed to his Irish Events newsreel and relationships with some large British distribution companies.

Cover of the Irish Program dated 18 March 1920 featuring an ad for Aimsir Padraig with Ira Allen in the title role.

Having made newsreels, advertising films, a religious pilgrimage films, Ireland’s first animated film and propaganda films, all genres that supported the main feature, Whitten chose the life of Ireland’s patron saint to make his feature debut. A veteran of the Irish trade, he had every reason to think this film would be popular in Ireland and with at least the Irish abroad. Given the focus on a religious figure, it was unlikely to be banned by the authorities, as his Sinn Fein Review had recently been. While the film played to Whitten’s exhibited strengths by tackling religious subject matter, it was also ambitious in not only recreating the biographical details that would have been well known to Irish people but also attempting to represent the miracles Patrick allegedly performed and aiming for an epic portrayal of Ireland’s ancient past. Somewhat jarringly from the perspective of a century later, he concluded the film with newsreel of religious sites, events and figures associated with Patrick, such as Cardinal Logue, the head of the Irish Catholic church. Whitten was, after all, the producer of the Irish Events newsreel, so he had this non-fiction material to hand. But this kind of narrative strategy seems to have been similar to Ireland a Nation (US: MacNamara, 1914), which had also used concluding newsreel to link the historical struggle for Irish self-determination with current events.

T. Carroll Reynolds as Niall of Nine Hostages in Aimsir Padraig. Standard 17 Mar 1961: 1.

To give a brief summary of the film: it begins with Patrick’s birth surrounded by angels, a scene that forms a sort of angelic prologue before scenes of Patrick’s early life with his family near the sea in Gaul, including his baptism and his first miracle in which he kindles ice to make a fire. He is then kidnapped by Irish raider Niall of the Nine Hostages and shipped to Ireland, is sold at a slave market and becomes a swineherd, learning Irish in the process. A vision of the angel Victor tells him to leave Ireland. He becomes a priest in Gaul, has a vision that Ireland needs him, is ordained bishop in Rome and lands with followers in Ireland. He makes his first conversions and lights a Paschal fire on the hill of Slane, unwittingly breaking a proclamation of High King Laoghaire of Tara. Patrick successfully confronts the force Laoghaire sends to arrest him, drinks poisoned wine at Tara without harm and converts Laoghaire. The film finishes with two sequences, one showing other important elements of the Patrick legend and the other an epilogue of newsreel featuring sites associated with Patrick, the 1919 Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick and Cardinal Logue at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh.

GFS cameraman J. Gordon Lewis shot Aimsir Padraig; Irish Limelight Jan. 1918: 10.

Irish cinemagoers would been familiar with the ancient world of Rome depicted on screen, and Ireland’s distant history had been portrayed on Irish stages, including in Ira Allen’s 1917 drama Tara’s Halls, or, St. Patrick and the Pagans. Indeed, Allen and his play were key contributors to Aimsir Padraig, with Allen taking the part of the adult Patrick. As the play text does not survive, it is difficult to establish how closely the film follows it. In one of the earliest extant references to the film, Bioscope then Irish correspondent Fingal reported in April 1919 that Allen was taking the title role and that “the scenario is by Mr. McGuinness, manager of the G.F.S., Mr. Norman Whitten is the producer, and the camera man is Mr. J. Gordon Lewis” (“Irish Notes” 10 Apr). Some early scenes had already been shot, and “these earlier episodes were taken amid snow-covered country, which forms an effective background for the dark habits of St. Patrick and his monks.”

JAP would take over the “Irish Notes” at the Bioscope at the end of May 1919 and provide further reports from the Aimsir Padraig set as production continued. Whitten began using the term Eire productions for his new fiction film venture, and he seems to have developed studios at his offices in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, which “will enable interiors to be filmed all the year round” (“Irish Notes” Apr 17). He later changed to Killester productions, as he was building “a fine studio, in admirably picturesque enclosed grounds” in that suburb of north Dublin (“Irish Notes” Sep. 25).

Images from the slave galley and possibly Patrick confronting Laoghaire’s troops; Bioscope 30 Oct. 1919: 52.

The lack of and necessity for the controlled environment of a studio was underlined by JAP’s stories from the set and his experiences as an extra. The film’s three most spectacular scenes were of the galley that brought Patrick to Ireland, the market where he was sold as a slave and the lighting of the Paschal fire. “During a scene which represented the landing of St. Patrick in Ireland,” he revealed,

the sea showed the rough edge of its temper unexpectedly, and St. Patrick and the company had a pretty severe buffeting. To add to their troubles, a modern fishing smack ran down the ancient galley, which was conveying the saint (then a youthful slave) and the other slaves to land, and various of the players were spilt into the waves. (Ibid.)

Patrick’s sister Lupita (Alice Keating) is sold at an Irish slave market.

Among those injured was Alice Keating, who played Patrick’s sister Lupita. “The chain which fettered her wrists caught in one of the oars or ‘sweeps’ of the galley as she was thrown into the water, and the oar struck her on the head, inflicting a nasty scalp wound. Pluckily, however, she insisted on going on with her part.”

One of the king’s chariots arrives at the slave market.

Not that the studios at Killester guaranteed perfect health and safety, as an anecdote about the use of chariots at the slave auction there suggests. “King Melchio […] having read, presumably, the auction advertisements, turns up in state to see if the goods are up to the shout,” JAP related.

He is accompanied by the Queen and the Princess, and they arrive in three separate and distinct chariots.

They rehearsed this incident so many times that the three horses drawing the King’s chariot got tired of it, and created a ‘divarshun’ by bolting. Mr. Mackie, who was disguised as charioteer, stuck on, and a moment later was flung into a bunch of bushes as the chariot upset. (“Irish Notes” 25 Sep.)

An article in the Irish Times suggests that this incident occurred on 11 September, when “about 200 men and young women posed for the cinematograph, and subsequently there were chariot races on the strand at Portmarnock” (“General Film Supply”).

JAP witnessed the production as participant as well as observer when he took the role of extra – or “super” – in the scene of the lighting of the Paschal fire on the hill of Slane. He published a page-and-a-half account in the Bioscope on 30 October 1919, but a photo that appeared in the Evening Telegraph on 11 October indicates that the scene was shot three weeks earlier on 10 October. “The first job I got,” he reveals after having been costumed and made up, “when we climbed to the top of [Slane] hill was gathering wood. The camera took up its stand in a strikingly picturesque corner of the fringe of a wood, and the programme was that some of the other supers and I should emerge from the trees, bearing bundles of brushwood and logs.”

A production still from Aimsir Padraig that appeared in the Evening Telegraph on 10 Oct. 1919. The caption reads: “On the Hill of Slane and in its vicinity a number of scenes were taken yesterday of the all-Irish film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick.’ They included the Lighting of the Paschal Fire by the Saint on the exact spot on which the tradition says it was lit by St. Patrick in the Fifth Century. As the result of the lighting of the fire the Saint was summoned to the Court of King Laoghaire. Our picture shows the King and Queen, with their guard, awaiting the arrival of Patrick, his disciples, and converts.

However, he suffered an unfortunate costume malfunction, when he discovered the sandals that he had been given were too small. “I was wrestling with them when the megaphone began to shout insistently,” he admits. “There was nothing for it but to revert to the customs of my far-distant ancestors, so I made my appearance bare-footed. It was some consolation to find that my neighbouring convert – a prominent Dublin exhibitor – was in a similar plight.” Despite the humorous tone of the article, the presence of so many other members of the industry willing to make up the crowd scenes suggests that it was widely regarded as an important undertaking. “We were a light-hearted band of moderns as we climbed that Hill of Slane,” as JAP puts it.

We realised that we were engaged on a task that was something more than the making of an ordinary motion picture. We were producing a film that would be have special appeal for millions of people scattered over the earth. Our task was to visualise for them one of their most intimate traditions; to bring before their eyes a personality vastly more real to them than any other figure in history. We – all of us, from the producer to the most insignificant super – were determined to do it to the best of our ability.

Ad for rights to distribute Aimsir Padraig abroad; Bioscope 13 Nov. 1919: 111.

An unnamed writer at the Irish Limelight witnessed but seems not to have participated in the same scene, observing that it “created a remarkable impression, which is bound to gain rather than lose in force when it is reproduced on the screens of the world.” For this writer, the film represented the start of a new kind of entertaining and informative filmmaking: “In this sphere a wide field of activities opens itself for Irish producers, who can, at the same time, satisfy commercial needs, and teach the history of an ancient civilisation to the people of Ireland as well as the people of the world” (“In the Days of St. Patrick”).

St Patrick banishes Ireland’s snakes: a scene whose realism one critic thought would cause hysteria among unsuspecting ladies. Standard 17 Mar. 1961: 1.

Two other notable features of the production – the treatment of miracles or other fantastical happenings and its use of Irish – were mentioned in JAP’s last 1919 Bioscope item on Aimsir Padraig. The shooting seems to have gone on for most of 1919, only finishing as JAP’s 13 November column appeared. Some of the most famous scenes were saved until last. “The other day St. Patrick, in accordance with tradition, drove the snakes out of Ireland,” JAP recorded. “Howth Head, some nine miles from Dublin, was the scene, and the exit of the reptiles was so realistic that some ladies walking along the cliff path and coming unexpectedly on the sight, might be pardoned for hysterics.” The specifics of Howth as a real Irish place is apparent here as it had been with Slane, Tara and Killester. Not that these places were all connected with the historical Patrick, but they were the actual places in which the film was shot and in which some unsuspecting contemporary ladies might be disturbed by the appearance of seemingly real snakes. But this reality and geographical specificity was also linked to metaphysical power and to the ability of Irish filmmakers to reproduce such power on the screen. This was guaranteed in part by mostly unnamed historians and clerics. Whitten “has had expert advice at every stage of the production, and a well-known ecclesiastic who is an authority on the Saint’s life, personally supervised some of the more important scenes.”

Whitten was very clearly making a political film, but one very different from his banned Sinn Fein Review. Aimsir Padraig was political in appealing to an Irish separatism based not on the politics of Sinn Féin and the IRA but on Catholicism and Gaelic culture expressed in the speaking of Irish or aspiring to. “The titles and sub-titles will be in Gaelic and English,” JAP explained in the same Bioscope item, “and here again the expert is employed, the Irish translations having been supplied by one of the best Gaelic scholars in Dublin.” The film’s titles were specially designed by William J. Walsh, and an opening title listed the Irish translator as Fiachra Eilgeach. The increasingly politicized Gaelic League, the body promoting Irish learning, had been declared illegal in September 1919. The learning of Irish is depicted in the film in a scene that is Patrick’s only really positive experience as a slave in Ireland. Working as a swineherd, Patrick “learns the Irish Language at the foot of Mount Slemish from his companions” (intertitle). Patrick is shown attempting to pronounce the Irish words they mouth for him, and they laugh heartily. The film’s bilingualism is its most obvious uniqueness because it is present from the moment one sees or hears its title. To some extent this bilingualism is a feature of many Irish film, such as Rosaleen Dhu or Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn with their conventional Anglicizations of Irish phrases. Aimsir Padraig moves beyond these conventions well known from the Irish play, albeit that it brings many others with it, as we have seen.

Ad for trade show of Aimsir Padraig/In the Days of St Patrick, Irish Independent 27 Jan. 1920: 4.

Given the interest and involvement in the production, it is hardly surprising that the trade show at the Grafton Street Picture House on 30 January 1920 received a high degree of attention not only in the trade press but in the Irish dailies more generally. JAP covered it for the Bioscope on 5 February and was doubtless responsible for the unsigned article on the trade show in the Evening Telegraph on 2 February. “It got a remarkably good reception from a crowded audience,” he revealed in the Bioscope, “which included practically every representative of the Trade in the Irish capital, a very large number of clergymen, and some of the principal members of the Film Company of Ireland.” “The life of Ireland’s patron saint has been filmed before now,” he noted in the Telegraph, referring to the 1912 Life of the St. Patrick: From the Cradle to the Grave by J. Theobald Walsh for the New York-based Photo-Historic company. However, “anything previously attempted fades into insignificance compared with this picture. ‘In the Days of St. Patrick’ is remarkable, not alone for its historical accuracy – in the matter of setting and costumes as much as in its strict adherence to the known facts of the Saint’s life – but for its wonderful photography” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, he was not wholly complimentary, commenting in the Bioscope that it “is not wholly free from the blemishes incidental to a first production – some scenes would bear cutting – notably that which shows St. Patrick being made a bishop,” a scene that certainly feels too long in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s surviving print.

Programme for Galway’s Victoria Cinema featuring Aimsir Padraig; Connacht Tribune 24 Apr. 1920: 3.

As a result of this publicity, the film had momentum behind it when it opened for the public on 15 March 1920 at Dublin’s Phibsboro Picture House, Rathmines Town Hall and Kingstown Picture House, as well as at Limerick’s Theatre Royal and Derry’s St Columb’s Hall. Other well-advertised runs followed at Sligo’s Town Hall (24-26 March), Cork’s Washington Cinema (5-10 April), the Picturedromes in Clonmel and Tipperary (5-7 April), Waterford’s Broad Street Cinema (15-17 April), Belfast’s St Mary’s Hall (19-24 April), Galway’s Victoria Cinema (26-27 April), Kilkenny’s Empire Theatre (3-5 May), Castlebar’s Ellison Cinema (7-10 May) and Carrick-on-Suir’s Park View Cinema (30 June-1 July).

Liverpool Echo 29 Jul. 1920: 1.

While Irish screenings became more sparse after this, British dates began to appear, with Liverpool’s Picton Hall advertising it for two weeks beginning 1 August, then retaining it for a third when a Liverpool Echo ad claiming that “the hearty and reverential spirit of this Picture has aroused large audiences to highest pitch of enthusiasm. The Picture is one of engrossing interest and educational value.” It also had a four-day run at Motherwell’s Town Hall beginning on 15 November 1920. But Whitten’s ambitions for the film were larger still. He advertised the American and colonial rights for sale, and at the end of June, JAP reported that he had taken the film to the United States some months earlier and was still there. “He has visited Los Angeles and all the big film-producing centres,” JAP revealed. “In a recent topical film from the United States of America, his friends in this country were amused to see N.W., ‘as large as life,’ figuring as a spectator just behind De Valera” (“Irish Notes,” 24 Jun.).

Aimsir Padraig at Ellison’s, Castlebar; Connaught Telegraph 1 May 1920: 2.

If he was away so long, it is not clear how much of the film’s Irish reception Whitten experienced first-hand. No doubt he or someone at GFS sent out press releases with materials on the film to the cinemas and newspapers in the towns in which the film screened. In several towns, the newspapers published this material at some length and with regional variations. Fewer places reviewed the film in a way that gives an indication of local reaction beyond the press. The first of these came from the Evening Herald, which published a notice of the opening day at the Phibsboro Picture House that is worth quoting at length for the details that are included in other articles on the film. “The Killester super-film, ‘In the Days of St. Patrick,’ was witnessed at each presentation yesterday by full and appreciative audiences,” it begins.

The film is all that has been claimed for it, and is one of transcendent beauty. Many of the actual spots in our isle hallowed by the footsteps of our National Apostle are included in the production, and each and all the participants in the magnificent presentation show a carefulness regarding histrionic detail that invests each scene unfolded with charm. The epilogue to this great picture is most interesting – showing St. Patrick’s grave at Downpatrick, some relics of the Saint, last year’s pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, the Armagh Cathedral, and our Apostle’s successor, his Eminence Cardinal Logue. It may be mentioned that the descriptive particulars of the scenario are in both Gaelic and Bearla [English]. The orchestral selections were in harmony with the picture. Included in the programme were the Houdini serial and a side-splitting Chaplin comedy, “Charlie’s Night Out.” (“The Phibsboro’.”)

Cork Examiner 5 Apr. 1920: 4.

Many of the details are familiar from other previews and reviews: the size and appreciation of the audience, the beauty of the images, the use of locations associated with Patrick, the interest of the newsreel and the bilingualism. Many notices more strongly emphasized the “all Irishness” of the production, notwithstanding Whitten’s own English origins. The Cork Examiner’s review of the shows at Cork’s Washington Cinema claimed that the film was “a truly All-Irish film, the artistes, photography, scenery and titles all being Irish. It is claimed to be the only All-Irish masterpiece yet produced” (“Washington Cinema”). Both the Washington and the Phibsboro chose to programme Aimsir Padraig with a Chaplin comedy, but fuller details in such areas as the actual names of the appropriate music provided in Phibsboro and elsewhere would be welcome. In Castlebar, Ellison’s promised “a grand concert each night, the services of Mr. Michael Maguire, Dublin, a famous baritone, having been engaged” (“Wonderful Picture”).

St Patrick’s Day programme at St Columb’s Hall, Derry; Derry Journal 15 Mar. 1920: 4

Only at Derry’s St Columb’s Hall on St Patrick’s day did an Irish programme support Aimsir Padraig to provide what the review called an “Excellent Irish Entertainment.” In this case, a concert of Irish songs, many of them in Irish and by singers who specialized in Irish-language material, preceded the screening of Aimsir Padraig. Vocalists Maud Clancy and Jack Collins were advertised for the full week, but on St Patrick’s night, they were joined by Maighread Ní L’Annagain and Seamus de Clanndíolun. “The possessor of a sweet and tuneful voice,” Ní L’Annagain “sang several numbers in delightful style. She gave most successful renderings of ‘Una Bhan,’ ‘The Peasant’s Bride,’ ‘Jackets Green,’ ‘Cleim an Fhiadha,’ ‘The Minstrel Boy,’ ‘An Rois Geal Dubh,’ and her efforts met with unstinted and well deserved admiration.” Dancing of jigs and hornpipes followed the singing before the film screening was accompanied by unspecified “Irish selections by the orchestra, directed by Mr. J.S. O’Brien.”

Albeit that it was rare, the release of two new Irish films created the possibility that Irish picture houses in 1920 could provide what contemporary observers thought was an excellent Irish cinematic entertainment.

References

“Back to the Fifth Century: Our Irish Representative Makes His Debut as a Film Actor: A Pressman in Ancient Ireland.” Bioscope 30 Oct. 1919: 52.

“Celtic Film Company’s ‘Rosaleen Dhu.”” Irish Limelight Dec. 1920: 19.

Denvir, John. Rolsalee Dhu; or The Twelve Pins of Bin-a-Bola. Denvir, 1874.

“Excellent Irish Entertainment in St. Columb’s Hall.” Derry Journal 19 Mar. 1920: 8.

“Festival: Engagements in the City and throughout the Country.” Freeman’s Journal 17 Mar. 1920: 5.

“General Film Supply: Preparing ‘In the Days of St. Patrick.’” Irish Times 12 Sep. 1919: 6.

Ging, Debbie. Men and Masculinity in Irish Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Hughes, 2014.

“In the Days of St. Patrick.” Irish Limelight Nov. 1920: 10.

“Irish Film Production: Wonderful Picture of the Life of St. Patrick: Splendid Photography.” Evening Telegraph 2 Feb. 1920: 2.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 10 Apr. 1919: 119; 17 Apr. 1919: 104-05; 25 Sep. 1919: 105; 30 Oct. 1919: 53, 54; 5 Feb. 1920: 113; 13 May 1920: 112; 24 Jun. 1920: 105.

“The Life of St. Patrick.” Sligo Champion 20 Mar. 1920: 4.

“Notes and News.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1919: 3.

O’Fearail, Padraig. “When Films Were Made in Bray.” Irish Times 16 Aug. 1977: 8.

“The Phibsboro’.” Evening Herald 16 Mar. 1920: 3.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996. Expanded online as the basis of Irish Film and TV Research Online. Trinity College, Dublin. https://www.tcd.ie/irishfilm/.

“‘Rosaleen Dhu.’” Sligo Champion 13 Mar. 1920: 4.

“Rosaleen Dhu.” Nationalist and Leinster Times 8 Apr. 1922: 2.

“St. Patrick’s Day: Celebrations in Cork: Imposing Procession: Clergy and Corporation.” Cork Examiner 18 Mar. 1920: 5, 8.

“Washington Cinema.” Cork Examiner 6 Apr. 1920: 4.

“A Wonderful Picture.” Connaught Telegraph 8 May 1920: 2.

Rebuilding Dublin as a Cinematic City for the 1920s

JAP’s end of year “Irish Notes,” Bioscope 25 Dec. 1919: 97.

Despite an increasingly unstable political situation as the War of Independence intensified, Irish cinema at the end of the 1910s was in a very healthy state, and cinema in Dublin especially was about to change radically as it underwent a post-World War I, post-1916 Rising building boom. Not that cinema did not face criticism from the Irish Vigilance Association and its press supporters in their ongoing campaign against imported popular culture, which the Evening Herald memorably saw as an “invasion of our theatres by the ever-increasing forces of smut-huns whose poison gas has been as great a danger to public morals as machines of war have been to the physical weal of the people” (“Cleanse the Theatres”).  Notwithstanding such campaigns, the exhibition side of the industry looked particularly strong at the end of 1919, and Irish film production also looked promising. In his last “Irish Notes” of the year in the Bioscope, JAP noted two coming productions. “‘Rosaleen Dhu,’” he reported, “is the title of a four-reel film which has been produced by the Celtic Film Company around Bray, Co. Wicklow” (“Irish Notes,” 25 Dec.). He gave more space to the news that

the Film Company of Ireland recently reconstructed as the Irish Film Company [and] has just completed its only 1919 production, a screen version of a story by the famous Irish novelist of the early nineteenth century, William Carleton. The film, “Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn,” was made amidst some of the most picturesque scenery in the vicinity of Dublin, and features Brian MacGowan, who made a big hit as the central figure, “Matt, the Thrasher,” in the company’s super-production, “Knocknagow.” (Ibid.)

 

Ad for the trade show of In the Days of St Patrick, Irish Independent 27 Jan. 1920: 4.

Beyond the expectations of this substantial production, JAP observed that both the Film Company and Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which was also completing a film about St Patrick, were building film studios in the Dublin suburbs. “There is plenty of room for both companies,” he concluded, “and ‘competition is the life of trade.’”

Clontarf Town Hall reopened on 23 December 1919. Dublin Evening Mail 20 Dec. 1919: 2.

To some extent, the reopening on 23 December 1919 of Clontarf Town Hall as a picture theatre epitomizes the development of Dublin film exhibition. The Town Hall had first operated as a cinema in 1913 at the height of the pre-war cinema building boom, and as such, was among the first of the suburban cinemas whose offerings of professionally produced entertainment outside the city made cinema such a phenomenal success in the 1910s. With a substantial resident population and a seaside location that drew people out of the city, the town hall had looked like a good prospect as an entertainment venue throughout the 1910s, but it experienced difficulties that saw it closing and reopening regularly, including in 1916 and 1917. It would change hands again in May 1920, when a Mr O’Connell was named as the proprietor (“Irish Notes,” 13 May). As such, it did not have the stability of the Bohemian Picture Theatre and Phibsboro Picture House in the north-city suburb of Phibsboro and the Princess Cinema and Rathmines Town Hall in the south-city suburb of Rathmines. The Bohemian in particular had overcome the disadvantage of location vis-à-vis city-centre cinemas by attracting patrons to Phibsboro with its musical attractions.

A 1926 Goad Fire Insurance map of the Sackville/O’Connell Street block containing La Scala and the Metropole.

If the 1910s saw the advent and the dominance to a significant degree of the suburban picture house, the turn of the decade to the 1920s would see the city-centre venues spectacularly reassert themselves. Four large cinemas were under construction on key sites in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area that had levelled during the fighting in 1916: La Scala, the Metropole, the Grand Central and the Corinthian. The destroyed block to the south of the GPO, the centre of fighting during the Rising, was about to become the location of two of these cinemas, La Scala and the Metropole. Formerly a hotel at the corner of O’Connell and Princes Streets, the Metropole would become an entertainment venue that included a dance hall, a restaurant and a thousand-seat cinema.

Caricature of Frank Chambers, Irish Limelight Nov.1917: 1.

That seating capacity was dwarfed by La Scala, “Dublin’s new super cinema,” which would occupy a site on Princes Street that had been the premises of the Freeman’s Journal and the print works of the Alex Thom publishing company (“Behind the Screen”). “When completed,” the Irish Limelight observed when the project was first announced in the spring of 1918, “the seating accommodation will exceed that of the Gaiety Theatre, while adjoining the auditorium will be spacious tea and refreshment lounges, modelled on the most up-to-date lines” (ibid.). At this point, the seating accommodation was put at 1,400, but when La Scala opened in August 1920, this figure had more than doubled to 3,200 (“Building News”). La Scala was promoted by a consortium led by Frank Chambers, who had opened the Carlton Cinema in O’Connell Street in December 1915, but who had sold his interest in the Carlton in order to focus on La Scala, with which it would be in competition.

Goad Fire Insurance map of Dublin’s Lower Sackville/O’Connell Street and Eden Quay showing the location and relative sizes of the Grand Central Cinema and the Corinthian Cinema.

But La Scala would have plenty of other competition, both established and new. JAP put it succinctly when reporting on a conversation with another proprietor of a Sackville/O’Connell Street cinema. “Speaking to Alderman Farrell, managing director of the Pillar Picture House, and other Dublin cinemas, the other day,” JAP revealed,

he confirmed the report that he had purchased the site in Sackville Street formerly occupied by the D.B.C. restaurant, which vanished in the flames of the 1916 rebellion. It is a fine site, one of the most central in Dublin. The only trouble is that it is almost directly opposite the two palatial cinemas – the Metropole and the Scala – at present in process of construction, and within a stone’s throw almost of half-a-dozen other houses doing good business. And just round the corner on Eden Quay, the newly-formed Corinthian company are building one of the two picture theatres promised in their prospectuses” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep).

Farrell’s new cinema would be called the Grand Central, its name incorporating that of the Grand Cinema, which until its destruction in 1916, had stood next door to the iconic DBC restaurant.

Extract from James T. Jameson’s assessment of the viability of the Corinthian Picture Company. Courtesy of the Architectural Archive of Ireland.

Another key member of the Irish cinema industry was asked to comment on the soundness of the Corinthian Picture Company’s business plan. On 25 August 1919, James T. Jameson wrote a report on the viability of two cinemas that the Corinthian Picture Company intended to build on sites at South Great Georges Street and Eden Quay in central Dublin. As the managing director of the Dublin Kinema Exchange and Mart and Ireland’s most prominent pioneer film exhibitor, Jameson was in a good position to make this assessment. His report was appended to an estimate of the profits of the two cinemas in a document that survives at the Irish Architectural Archive (“Statement”). In it, Jameson approves of the architectural drawing that Thomas McNamara had prepared and of the central locations that the company had secured. With good tram links and plenty of passing trade, the latter would ensure that

there will be no necessity for expensive competitive films, as good ordinary programmes would in my opinion be quite sufficient, neither would there require to be a great deal of advertising, both of which are such a heave outlay on Picture Houses built in out-of-the-way streets […], and for which big extra attractions and expenses are involved to secure a clientele.

The particular merits of the Eden Quay site were that it “is faced with the inward and outward evening flow of patrons for the Royal Hippodrome and Tivoli Theatres, besides being in the line of persons passing from the North and South sides of the city. The impressive front of this Theatre also cannot be missed and will always be a standing attraction.” Indeed, the company decided to proceed with only this cinema, but it would not open until August 1921, almost exactly two years after Jameson wrote his report.

Although he mentions the possibility of increased revenues if the cinemas could secure Sunday opening, Jameson curiously did not take the growing competition in the Sackville/O’Connell Street area into account. The Recorder had banned Sunday opening for city-centre cinemas except in poor residential areas, and part of the controversy that La Scala would cause related to its attempts to get around this restriction. Suburban cinemas did not have to face the Recorder’s ban, although local clergy enforced Sunday closing in Rathmines. Other objections to the new city-centre cinema boom came from those who feared that cinema was replacing other art forms. “I read your leading article on ‘Music in Dublin,’ in Saturday’s issue, with very great interest,” letter writer “Musicus” commented in the Irish Times at the end of October 1919. “One would have thought that a fine [concert] hall would have been erected in Sackville street, instead of a new picture house, of which we have plenty” (“Music in Dublin”).

JAP was also less impressed than Jameson appeared to be with the re-centralization of cinema. “What puzzles me,” he opined, “is why all the new cinemas are being built in the centre of the city. I know of one or two sites in the outer circle which are simply shrieking to have cinemas built upon them. One district in particular should prove a veritable gold mine for the man who gets there first” (“Irish Notes,” 11 Sep). The unnamed suburb was probably not Clontarf, but it may have been the Liberties, Pembroke or Stoneybatter, where the Manor Street Cinema opened in May 1920.

Areas of Dublin’s suburbs did remain to be exploited by the cinema trade, but what was remarkable as 1919 became 1920 was the way in which parts of the city centre destroyed during the 1916 Rising were not being reconstructed as concert halls, press/publishing facilities or restaurants. They were being rebuilt as part of a cinematic city for the 1920s.

References

“Behind the Screen.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 4.

“Building News.” Irish Builder 14 Aug. 1920: 530.

“Cleanse the Theatres.” Evening Herald 4 Jun. 1919: 2.

“Irish Notes.” Bioscope 11 Sep. 1919: 95; 25 Dec. 1919: 97-98; 13 May 1920: 112.

“Music in Dublin.” Letter. Irish Times 27 Oct. 1919: 6.

“Statement Showing How Estimate of Profits Is Arrived At and Report of Mr. James T. Jameson.” RP.D.147.7, Irish Architectural Archive.

“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no longer referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his/her notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.

Instructive Images on Irish Cinema Screens in Late Summer 1917

Kingstown Pav DEM 6 Aug 1917

William Quinn – “The McCormack of the West” – was among the vocalists that the Pavilion engaged to attract the wealthy residents of Kingstown. Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man (US: Fine Arts, 1916) was of secondary importance. Dublin Evening Mail 6 Aug. 1917: 2.

At the Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) Horticultural Show on 1 August 1917, local landlord Lord Powerscourt won not only the Challenge Cup for roses but also the Kingstown Picture House’s Cup for sweet peas (“Kingstown Horticultural Show”). That an Irish picture house was sponsoring such an event is indicative of cinema’s increasing integration into everyday life, and particularly its penetration of the realms occupied by the genteel gardeners of south County Dublin. Extra urgency had been added to the Kingstown’s courting of this audience by the reopening on 7 July 1917 of the Kingstown Pavilion. The Picture House had had the entertainment pickings of this wealthy town to itself since the Pavilion burned down on 13 November 1915. It would face well-advertised competition from the stylishly rebuilt Pavilion – designed by Coliseum architect Bertie Crewe – which sought to attract the affluent Kingstownites with vocal accompaniments to its films. You can get there [from Dublin] by tram or train,” an unnamed reviewer of the new picture house observed, “and whatever way you travel you will find plenty to please the eye en route” (“Cinema by the Sea”).

Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 6.

In late summer of 1917, cinema usefulness, its embeddedness in Irish society was evident not just in the importance of propagandistic films featuring soldiers at the front but also in its instructive role in relation to food production and child rearing. Lord Powerscourt may have been happy with decorative roses and sweet pea, but the food shortages caused by the continuing war meant that people unused to agricultural work were being urged to assist in the harvests and to grow their own food. A Women’s Land Army was established in mid-1917 to provide an agricultural workforce. Among the ways in which this force was to be promoted and trained was through “an excellent cinema film […] showing the work of women on the land” (“The Women’s Land Army”). “In these days of war savings and general cheeseparing,” J. B. Holland, the writer of the “Motor News” column in Dublin’s Daily Express, reported at the end of July 1917, “it is something worthy of note to find a brand new word added to our vocabulary, and one that you can use too in polite society. Well that is the word – ‘Agronomist.’” This expansion to the writer’s vocabulary came from a film exhibited “in a cubby-hole cinema in a Sussex village” and depicting “a number of Agronomists in the very act of agronomising (or whatever the verb may be) with the result that all of us, individually and collectively decided at once to ‘go thou and do like likewise’” (Holland).

“You ought to know better than to send in seed potatoes for eating”; framegrab from Everybody’s Business (Britain: London, 1917), viewable here.

Holland did not name this film, but the Kingstown Pavilion had featured Everybody’s Business on its opening programme which may not have been an agronomizing film but was a fictional “food economy film.” It was, according to the trade journal Bioscope “in many respects the most important, and quite the most successful propaganda film that has been issued since the beginning of the war” (“Food Economy Film”). Although the “speeches of politicians, the canvassing by constituted societies, striking posters and press campaigns all have their effect,” the Bioscope argued that

a film which incorporates the essential parts of all these methods, contained in a pleasing and simple story, well told and admirably presented, must have a stupendous effect when circulated by a medium which has grown to be the most widely popular form of entertainment.

The Health Visitor (Dorothea Baird) teaches a new mother how to wash her baby in Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Image from the Women’s Film Pioneers Project.

Fiction films with such an explicit instructional intent were becoming more common. Just a few days before Pavilion audiences were warned off food wastage, audiences in other Irish cinemas were learning about child rearing from Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Sponsored by the National Baby Week Council, the film had been written by and featured Dorothea Baird, well-known stage and screen actress and wife of actor H. B. Irving. It was released for Britain and Ireland’s first National Baby Week that ran 1-7 July 1917. Alongside Dublin’s official events centred around an exhibition at the Mansion House, the Carlton Cinema showed Motherhood, which “illustrates how the rearing of children can be made a joyful thing and happy in its results, even in the poorest homes if only kindly interest and help is given to the mothers” (“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton”). As well as a fictional narrative that demonstrated how a new mother (Lettie Paxton) is introduced to a School for Mothers by a Health Visitor (Baird), the film carried the endorsement of celebrities such as Baird and members of the social and political elite. “Mrs. Lloyd George, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Rhondda, Sir Richard Burbidge, Mrs. H. B. Irving, and many other notabilities connected with the National Baby Week Council have been specially filmed,” a Dublin Daily Express article observed, “so that their portraits may accompany the messages which they send to the nation through this epoch-making picture.” Lady Wimborne, wife of Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, also endorsed the film, albeit belatedly, by attending a screening on 17 July 1917 at the Grafton Street Picture House (“To-Day in Brief”).

In the context of this increasing elite support for cinema, Winston Churchill was going somewhat against the grain when he decided following his appointment as Minister for Munitions not to fulfil his contract with the Ideal Film Renting to write the script for a film about the origins of the war (“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories”). But then, cinema had not been completely shaped to serve the war economy. It still represented a largely proletarian entertainment form and a space removed from work or fully rationalized leisure. It continued to arouse various kinds of anxieties in those in authority. The fear that picture houses provided sanctuary for shirkers and deserters was well illustrated by a parliamentary question in late July. Henry Dalziel asked Undersecretary of State for War Ian MacPherson what the British government was doing about English men who fled to Ireland to escape conscription. “Is he aware that there are hundreds of these men to be seen at cinemas in Dublin every night,” Dalziel asked MacPherson, addressing him in the third person, “and cannot he net more than a few back?” (“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas”).

Still from the Clontarf Aquatic Festival, one of the items in Irish Events 3. Irish Limelight I:8 (Aug. 1917): 18.

Apart from the instructive fiction films, draft dodgers and other members of the cinema audience in Ireland were offered instructive local topical films, while the Film Company of Ireland was facing challenges finishing its epic Knocknagow. An increasing number of picture houses subscribed to the recently launched Irish Events newsreel, which had produced seven weekly issues and some specials by the end of August 1917. “The success of the Irish Topical Gazette has exceeded Mr. Whitten’s wildest anticipations,” observed Irish columnist Paddy in the Bioscope. “Many exhibitors have booked a contract for an extended period” (Paddy, 16 Aug.). And it was not just Irish exhibitors who could look forward to booking Irish Events because “Mr Whitten is making all arrangements for its showing in London” (Paddy, 23 Aug.).

A newsreel of Eamon De Valera’s victory in the Clare Election on 11 July 1917 could be seen on the screen at Dublin’s Rotunda on 16 July. Dublin Evening Mail 16 July 1917: 2.

Irish Events 2, the second weekly instalment of this newsreel, was issued on 23 July 1917 and featured five one-minute items that represented a mix of social and political events. As such, it resembled other newsreels, but Whitten appears to have conceived of it as primarily for social events because four of the items were of this type: The Mullingar Races, Trotting in Shelbourrne Park, A Garden Fete at Bushey Park and The Metropolitan Regatta at Island Bridge. The sole political item was De Valera after the East Clare Election (“Irish Topical Films”). The election film depicted an important event, but when viewed in the week of 23-28 July, it was not particularly timely as De Valera had won for Sinn Féin on 11 July. Indeed, a film of the election had been shown at the Rotunda – and undoubtedly other picture houses – beginning on 16 July, the same day as Irish Events 1 appeared but not as part of it.

Rotunda Convention 26 Jul 1917 DEM

An ad for Dublin’s Bohemian featuring a newsreel special on the Irish Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jul. 1917: 2.

With the emergence of Sinn Féin, political events in Ireland were moving fast, too fast for a weekly newsreel to keep up. It appears that Whitten planned to release the regular issues of Irish Events with items that could be planned in advance of its Monday release but also to release special “stop-press” films of events that could not be included in this way. This was the case when the Irish Convention, a meeting of Irish representatives convened to tackle the “Irish problem,” opened on Wednesday, 25 July. Whitten released a newsreel special of the Convention that was screened in Dublin’s Bohemian on 26 July. “Mr. Whitten is determined,” Paddy reported, “to let nothing stand in his way as regards securing the latest topical events” (16 Aug.).

Irish Events faced competition from the filmmaking activities of the Princess picture house in Rathmines; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jul. 1917: 2.

By releasing the films of important political events quickly, Whitten maintained the scoop on his competitors. He faced competition on the filming of newsworthy events particularly from Gaumont, which had a substantial presence in Ireland and whose Gaumont Graphic newsreel was very popular. As well as this, Irish Events also faced local competition in its depiction of social events. Throughout July and August 1917, the Princess Cinema in Rathmines filmed such social events as the British Red Cross Garden Fete and the Opening of the Irish Counties’ Hospital by Lady Wimborne and even The Bushey Park Fete, which Whitten had also featured in Irish Events 2. While the Princess advertised that their films were exclusive – taken by them and not to be seen elsewhere – Irish Events was designed to be widely distributed. Whitten and his cameraman J. Gordon Lewis would have a busy autumn as they worked on Irish Events, on advertising films for Court Laundry and Paterson’s matches, and on an animated film with cartoonist Frank Leah.

Joseph Holloway’s sketch of Frank Fay as Beresford Pender in a stage adaptation of Charles J. Kickham’s Knocknagow at the Queen’s Theatre in July 1917. National Library of Ireland.

Although it had some organizational problems, Ireland’s other major indigenous film production company, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) also entered the somewhat crowded field of local factual filmmaking. Paddy reported that FCOI “have just finished an enormous scenic film dealing with the beauties of rural Ireland, and also containing many character studies and views of historic places” (23 Aug.). Rather than one long film, this was a series consisted of 20 one-reel films. These may have been among the company’s films that Paddy reported that Glasgow’s Square Film Company had arranged to distribute. FCOI managing director James Sullivan also told Paddy that their “almost completed” Knocknagow would be nine reels long, “the longest production ever made in the United Kingdom.”

Sullivan was eager to keep the much-anticipated adaptation of Knocknagow in the forefront of the media discussion of the company rather than its recent winding up proceedings. On 25 June 1917, his wife Ellen Sullivan, as a company creditor, had applied for its winding up in order that it could be restructured. During the proceedings, it emerged that she had given the company £500 and that it was running at a loss of £1,526 (“Film Company of Ireland”). The restructuring was necessary because James Sullivan’s co-director Henry Fitzgibbon had gone to America to promote the company but had decided not to return to Ireland. The proceedings caused some anxiety in those who were peripherally involved in FCOI. “I recently saw that the Film Co. of Ireland has been before the Court for winding up prior to reconstruction,” playwright Martin J. McHugh wrote to Joseph Holloway. “This may, and I hope will, mean only a delay in the resumption of their work; but somehow it damps one’s confidence in Irish enterprise, which does not seem usually to be blessed with good management” (Holloway, 7 Jul. 1917). McHugh had written two scripts for FCOI, “one long since paid for and photographed, and the other yet to be produced – and I wonder what will become of them.”

While the future of Irish fiction filmmaking looked uncertain at the end of summer 1917, instructive images of various kinds filled the screens.

References

“Cinema by the Sea.” Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 4.

“Film Company of Ireland.” Daily Express 26 Jun. 1917: 3.

“The Food Economy Film: “Everybody’s Business”: A Stirring Appeal to the People.” Bioscope 14 Jun. 1917: 1050.

Holland, J. B. “Motor Notes.” Daily Express 30 Jul. 1917: 3.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas Every Night: Commons Questions.” Evening Herald 24 Jul. 1917: 1.

“Irish Topical Films.” Evening Telegraph 21 Jul. 1917: 4.

“Kingstown Horticultural Show: Decrease in Exhibits.” Daily Express 2 Aug. 1917: 7.

“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton.” Daily Express 2 Jul. 1917: 7.

“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories.” Daily Express 21 Jul. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 5 Jul. 1917: 83; 16 Aug. 1917: 766; 23 Aug. 1917: 881.

“Seen and Heard: Notes and Notions on Men and Matters.”  Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2.

“To-Day in Brief.” Daily Express 18 Jul. 1917: 4.

“The Women’s Land Army” Daily Express 9 Jul. 1917: 4.

A New Industry: The Film Company of Ireland’s First Season

Kathleen Murphy ET 7 Apr 1917

A photograph of Kathleen Murphy advertised the beginning of the Film Company of Ireland’s 1917 production season; Evening Telegraph 7 Apr. 1917: 4.

In April 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) began publicizing the fact that they were beginning a second season of production. On 7 April, a photograph of Kathleen Murphy appeared in the Evening Telegraph‘s “Music and the Drama” column, with a caption indicating that she was playing the part of Nora Lahy in a film adaptation of Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow that was already in production. Based on Ireland’s most popular novel of the late-19th century, Knocknagow on film would be an ambitious undertaking, and it would be popular with contemporary Irish audiences. And because it – along with Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), is one of only two FCOI films that survive in a substantially complete form, it is relatively well known, at least by film scholars (see here, for example). However, the film of Knocknagow would not reach Irish audiences until early 1918.

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

FCOI made two other feature films during the summer production season of 1917: the comedy Rafferty’s Rise and historical romance When Love Came to Gavin Burke. However, despite the fact that the May 1917 issue of Irish Limelight published photographs from Rafferty’s Rise, the release of these films would also take many months. As a result, the FCOI’s 1916 films continued to circulate and represent – indeed, to constitute – the company’s released output for much of 1917. Nevertheless, beyond O’Neil of the Glen and perhaps The Miser’s Gift – both of which have already been written about here – very little is known about the other 1916 films. This is not surprising because surviving information on them is scant. In marked contrast to the barrage of publicity that heralded the release of O’Neil of the Glen and, to a lesser extent, The Miser’s Gift, the later 1916 films seem to have appeared with little fanfare. Nevertheless, bringing together some of surviving information reveals hitherto unknown aspects of these obscure but important early Irish films and the company that made them.

FCOI advertised upcoming releases in the Irish press on 14-15 August 1916. This one appeared in the Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

Even the number of films they made in 1917 is not entirely clear. With O’Neil of the Glen newly released and creating a stir in August 1916, the company announced in the Irish dailies that it had a further four films ready for release in September: The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair. As well as these presumably complete or almost complete films, it listed nine other titles that it had in production: The Upstart, Blarney, The Irish Girl, a series called Shanachies Tales, Irish Jarvey Tales – possibly another series – Bye Ways of Fate, Treasure Trove, Willie Reilly and The Girl from the Golden Vale. With so little surviving information, ads such as this have often been taken as confirming that these films were actually made. These films appear in the standard Irish and British filmographies – Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version, and Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, as they do in the books that take these reference works as a source.

Trade journals and local and national newspapers fill in some – but by no means all – of the details of FCOI’s filmmaking and exhibition exploits from the summer of 1916 to the summer of 1917. These sources show that all four films from the first group were subsequently released, albeit not in September 1917. Of the second group, only Willie Reilly is readily recognizable as an FCOI title – Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn – but it would not be released until early 1920. Some of the other eight films named in this ad may be working titles for the films that FCOI did release in late 1916 and early 1917. There is substantial evidence that in addition to the five films already named, the company released four others in this period: Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone.

Ad for FCOI films released in 1916 and made in 1917. Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 16.

None of these corresponds exactly to the in-production titles mentioned in the ad, but some are close, such as the in-production titles The Girl from the Golden Vale and The Irish Girl which bear a similarity to A Girl of Glenbeigh. These were, of course, Irish versions of titles in the format “An X Girl” or “The Girl of X” that had been internationally popular for decades. However, as A Girl of Glenbeigh specifically names a place in Kerry, it is unlikely to have morphed from The Girl from the Golden Vale – with its reference to the rich farmland in the counties to the east of Kerry. But the film may have begun life under the less specific title The Irish Girl. That said, the in-production titles that include Irish place names suggest a different geography from the four that were finally made. Blarney and The Girl from the Golden Vale indicate a company working in Cork, while A Girl of Glenbeigh and Puck Fair Romance are firmly located in west Kerry.

The issue of the films’ geography deserves further discussion, but this blog will work on the basis that FCOI did not make all the films named in the 14-15 August ad. Evidence suggests that the company released not fourteen films but nine in its opening season, which nonetheless represents a substantial output. For clarity, those nine films are: O’Neil of the Glen, The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love, An Unfair Love Affair, Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone. Although this blog will have something to say about the first two, it will mainly focus on the latter seven.

J. M. Kerrigan

J. M. Kerrigan, Irish Limelight January 1917: 3.

All nine of these films appear to have been directed – the contemporary term, confusingly, was “produced” – by Abbey Theatre actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also starred or at least had a prominent acting role in many of them. Kerrigan was one of FCOI co-founder and producer James Mark Sullivan’s earliest recruits to the company; he was already working with FCOI in March 1916 – the same month as Sullivan and his partner Henry Fitzgibbon registered the company – and may even have invested money in it (Holloway, 21 Mar.). Kerrigan was soon joined by other actors from the Abbey and other theatres, most frequently by Fred O’Donovan, Kathleen Murphy and Nora Clancy, and more occasionally by Brian Magowan, J. M. Carre, Irene Murphy, Valentine Roberts and others. Also a star of the Abbey, O’Donovan would take over as FCOI’s actor-director for the 1917 production season when Kerrigan left Ireland for the United States in early 1917 on a career path that would eventually see him become a well-loved Hollywood character actor. His permanent departure seems to have come as a surprise to some in the press. On 12 April, Paddy reported that Kerrigan “has left America on his return voyage, and is expected to arrive almost any day now.” A report a week later suggested that he had little thoughts of returning to Ireland. “He has ‘made good’ out there in a surprisingly short space of time,” J.A.P. (Joseph A. Power) noted in the Evening Telegraph on 20 April, referring to reviews of Kerrigan’s early US stage performances. “It is only a few months since he left Ireland, yet here are the blasé Yankee journalists hurling bouquets at him with all the vigour of the great American language” (“Gossip of the Day”).

Engaging prominent Abbey actors bolstered FCOI’s claim that it was the Film Company of Ireland and was extending into the new cinematic medium the Abbey’s project of representing Ireland differently. “With the assistance of such artists as they had associated with them,” Fitzgibbon was reported as saying at a press luncheon in June 1916 to celebrate the launch of O’Neil of the Glen, “with Irish scenery and Irish literary talent, they were bound to succeed and be proud of the enterprise in which they were engaged” (“New Irish Industry”). If anybody was well placed to revise the representation of Irish people through performance, it was Kerrigan and this group of Irish actors who were intimately familiar not only with the plays and acting styles of the Irish revival developed at the Abbey but also with the modern drama represented by Shaw and Ibsen. But the company was also open to performers from beyond Ireland: “In the next film,” the Irish Times reported, “Mrs. H. M. Fitzgibbon, a vivacious French lady will make her appearance” (“Irish Film Production”). Although FCOI publicity made much of the claim that their films were “all Irish,” Fitzgibbon’s wife Peggy Darval was mentioned among the cast on occasion (“Back from Kerry”). This remark about his marriage to an actress also suggests that Fitzgibbon, about whom little else is known, may have had a personal motivation for getting involved in the film business.

FCOI seeks scriptwriters: Irish Independent 28 Mar. 1916: 1.

But actors alone were not enough for the company’s success. When Fitzgibbon mentioned the “Irish literary talent,” he must have been referring in part to Bernard Duffy, the writer of several one-act rural comedies for the Abbey who had also attended O’Neil of the Glen’s launch. Duffy praised FCOI for its “wholesome desire to reproduce the atmosphere of the country, and the motive was not purely mercenary. A vast field of folk literature was yet to be explored and utilised” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, sourcing new or adapted stories seems to have been difficult, and few if any Abbey playwrights were involved in the company. FCOI advertised more frequently in the press in 1916 for scenario writers than for other kinds of collaborators.

Following the destruction of its offices in Henry Street during the Rising, FCOI moved to Dame Street. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 7.

Discussion of the company often mentions the destruction during the Rising of FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street but less frequently reveals the names of the people who worked there or in their new offices at 34 Dame Street. All the 1916 films were shot by John A. Bennett, who had worked for many years as the chief projectionist – or “operator” – and sometimes cameraperson for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Film Company based mainly at Dublin’s Rotunda, as well as later acting as the Dublin manager for the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy, 18 Nov.; 13 Jul.). However, by January 1917, Bennett was seeking other work, presumably because he was not being paid by FCOI (Paddy, 11 Jan.). In any case, FCOI’s camera work in 1917 was first taken up by the company’s secretary Robert Justice – he featured in a June 1917 Irish Limelight article in this role – before Pathé camera operator William Moser became the company’s cinematographer (“With the Film Co. of Ireland”).

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

Among the other identifiable members of the company in 1916 and early 1917 were the sales and marketing operatives Mr. Coen, Joseph Boland and Ben Cowan. These men were vital to FCOI’s success, and although usually ignored by later film historians, they received considerable attention from contemporary trade journals because these were the people that journalists and cinema managers were most likely to meet. Coen was the company’s sales agent in Ireland until September 1916 when he was replaced by Boland, who for some years had been the travelling representative for General Film Supply (GFS), Ireland’s other major film production company of the period (Paddy, 28 Sep.). Boland appears to have had a good reputation in the industry in Ireland; the distributor M.P. Sales tried unsuccessfully and publicly to lure him away from GFS in early 1916 (Paddy, 17 Feb., 24 Feb., “Bioscope Parliament”). Cowan – one of a number of Russian Jews working in the early Irish film industry – ran Express Film Agency, the Irish agent for several British distributors, and he acted as publicist for the very successful 7 August launch of O’Neil of the Glen. Following this, he told reporters that “he intends to introduce many novel ideas in the advertising line. Another Trade show will shortly be held, at which it is Mr. Cowan’s intention to screen two more subjects” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, the second trade show on 17 August 1916 at the Dame Street Picture House would feature just The Miser’s Gift.

FCOI was intensely busy in August 1916. In Dublin, Cowan was publicizing the five complete or nearly complete productions shot earlier in the summer, as well as the other eight titles notionally in production. The Miser’s Gift was trade shown three days later. At some point in early August, Sullivan and Kerrigan brought the cast and crew to Kerry to shoot the four fiction films that would actually make up the second half of their 1916 production season. The date of departure is not clear, but if Puck Fair Romance was actually shot at Killorglin’s Puck Fair in 1916, then the company would have to have been in Kerry before 12 August because the fair took place between 10 and 12 August. They were certainly in Kerry by 20 August. An article in the Kerry News reported on a fundraising concert that FCOI mounted on 3 September to clear the debt from Glenbeigh’s Catholic church. It observed that the company “came to Glenbeigh two weeks ago where they opened a tour of the Kingdom’s beauty spots, and at present they are staying at O’Sullivan’s hotel, Muckross, having the scenes in several new films laid in and around Killarney” (“Film Company of Ireland”). If “two weeks” here is to be taken literally, the company reached Kerry on or about 20 August, but this seems like a flexible temporality. Nevertheless, the concert does seem to have marked the end of FCOI’s visit to Kerry. By 5 September, Dublin’s Evening Herald was reporting the company’s return to Dublin (“Back from Kerry”).

This suggests that the production unit had left Dublin before the publication of 14 August ad mentioning the eight films that were not subsequently made, as well as the Miser’s Gift trade show. Poor communication might explain why on 14 August, the company’s publicist did not have the titles for the scenarios that had begun shooting that week nor the locations at which they were being shot. But if this is true, then the production unit, which included Sullivan and possibly Fitzgibbon – it certainly included his wife – must have been surprized by the announcement of those eight titles in the national press. The tight timeframe also suggests that at least some and possible all of the scenarios were not carefully prepared and honed in advance but were hastily written on location. Only for The Eleventh Hour was a writer subsequently identified: Mark Coakley (“New Irish Film”).

Whatever FCOI’s reason for the eventual choice of Kerry above other parts of the country, accounts in the Kerry papers of FCOI’s filmmaking are very reminiscent of Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier’s filmmaking adventures in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Making films for the Kalem Company and later for themselves, Olcott and Gauntier had repeatedly gravitated back to the Killarney area, often basing themselves in the village of Beaufort and taking advantage of the rugged mountain, lake and seashore landscapes available in west Kerry. Their dramas of rural life, emigration and historical rebellion had been very popular with Irish audiences, making this region the most identifiable early Irish cinematic landscape. The Post, however, chose to compare Olcott and Gauntier’s films unfavourably to the as-yet-unseen filmmaking efforts of FCOI. “We are glad that at length an Irish Company has appeared,” a columnist commented. “The misrepresentation of Ireland and her people were the aims of most of those who took up work such as this in the past. The production created a feeling of resentment and indignation” (“Notes on News”).

The last day of The Food of Love‘s run at the Dame Street Picture House; Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1916: 2.

Nevertheless, this does not look like FCOI offering radically new representations of Ireland. With at least some of their first five films shot in Wicklow – this certainly seems to have been the case with O’Neil of the Glen and The Food of Love whose publicity made much of “the lovely scenery around Glendalough” – and the final four shot in Kerry, FCOI was once again exploiting Ireland’s most reproduced picturesque locations (“Irish Film Production”).

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

That said, there may be some novelty in the choice of southwest Kerry locations, which can be established readily from the titles and synopses of the films. The Bioscope short synopsis of Puck Fair Romance – which it titled A Romance of Puck Fair – gives little indication that the film was actually shot at Killorglin’s famous festival. “He was addicted to walking tours, she was an artist,” it begins. “They met in the country, on a farm, She thought him ‘a farmer’s boy,’ he thought her a farmer’s daughter. They canoodled and when their separate ways, he regretting having left her, she sorry to have deceived him. When they met in town it was all right” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 28 Dec.). Little is made here of the fair, with its central feature: the electing of a billygoat as King Puck and parading him on a raised platform. Nevertheless, the critic was complimentary, if not completely positive, judging that it was “quite pretty, set in delightful Irish scenes, and there are two other nice people in it, his pal and her model, but they could not be expected to complete their romance in the same reel.”

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

Killarney is most famous for its lakes, and as such, the lakeshore setting of The Eleventh Hour may be deemed clichéd. On the other hand, Coakley’s scenario – “in which the paternal instinct is the moving force” – was shot around the lesser known Caragh Lake, a scenic spot on the road between Glenbeigh and Killorglin (“New Irish Film”). A Girl of Glenbeigh indicates its setting in its title. Joseph Holloway’s comments on it when he saw it at the Rotunda on 15 Feb 1917 indicate how romance and landscape worked together. He observed in his diary that “[i]t told an interesting & effective love story that did not run smoothly, nicely amid beautiful scenery & surroundings – O’Donovan was the love in the story who had two strings to his bow – a farmer’s daughter & a lady. The latter two were played by the Miss Murphys.” Where Widow Malone – the fourth of the Kerry films – was shot is not clear from surviving sources. The Bioscope described its “simple” plot, in which

[p]retty widow Malone is counted by the political town councillor, the local schoolmaster and the village blacksmith. The two former are after her snug fortune, and are a couple of windbags, but the hearty smith, loyal when her fortune is supposed to be lost, wins Nora without much difficulty.” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 14 Dec.).

While the period in Kerry was a busy one for the company, the return to Dublin seems to have put an end for some time to the involvement of many of the actors. Certainly, by the 25 September, Kerrigan and O’Donovan were back in Dublin and acting – in a special arrangement with FCOI – in John Bull’s Other Island, the opening play of the Abbey’s autumn season (“What’s on in Dublin”). There are some indications that the break up of the acting company was not altogether amicable. Holloway had a conversation with Abbey director John A. Keogh on 1 November 1916, who told him that “the Film Co. Of Ireland had burst up & the members all seeking engagements at the Abbey – O’Donovan had left it some time ago to join the Abbey Co.” Keogh comments may have to be treated with caution; he had hostility towards FCOI because of the special arrangements he had to make to be allowed to cast Kerrigan. Nevertheless, he did have information from the actors, so it may be true that “[f]unds had become low owing to the films released not catching on as was thought.”

Those involved in production may have been at a loose end by the start of September, but work for other elements of the business was increasing. At the end of August, Dublin Corporation considered an application from FCOI to build a studio on Pigeon House Road; the outcome of the application is not clear, but these studios were not built. Nevertheless, the Bioscope reported in September that FCOI “are fitting up very elaborate developing-rooms, etc., in their premises at 34, Dame Street, Dublin. Mr. W. James, chief operator at the Bohemian Theatre, Dublin, is in charge of the wiring and other electrical fittings” (“All-Irish Films”). This short item also renewed a call for scenario writers to “submit [FCOI] a sample of their work. The Scenario should preferably have Irish atmosphere, but this is not absolutely essential.”

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

With this fit-out of post-production facilities underway, it took some time for the release of the remainder of the season’s films. The company’s first priority was the Irish market, and Boland appears to have been busy selling to cinemas all over the country. Despite the Dame Street Picture House claim in late October 1916 that it had secured “the initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.,” the films premiered all over Ireland. Even FCOI’s long-heralded second release, The Miser’s Gift, had its first public viewings at Cork’s Coliseum on 12-14 October and a three-day run at Tralee’s Picturedrome (19-21 Oct.) before it had its Dublin debut at the Dame on 26-28 October. The Food of Love similarly premiered at the Coliseum on 23-25 October before appearing at the Dame for the three-day run of 2-4 November. However, Widow Malone was FCOI’s third release when it appeared at Kilkenny’s Cinema on Sunday, 22 October 1916 for a special benefit screening for the Gaelic League. The film had a more conventional three-day run at Belfast’s Kinema House later that week, beginning on 26 October.

Puck Fair Romance premiered in Belfast’s Kinema House; Belfast News-Letter 9 Nov. 1916: 1

Indeed, Belfast, with the largest cinema-going population in the country, could not be and was not ignored in the awarding of premieres. Audiences at the Kinema House were the first to be offered Puck Fair Romance from 9-11 November. The Dame does seem to have debuted An Unfair Love Affair on 23-25 November. A Girl of Glenbeigh, however, premiered in Kerry, at Tralee’s Picturedrome on 27-28 November. The Dame also had the first viewings of the final two releases of the year. It opened The Eleventh Hour – FCOI’s second three-reel film –on 30 November 1916 for a three-day, end-of-week run. It was nearly a month later when the final release of the season, Woman’s Wit, had its debut at the Dame on 26 December.

Much more remains to be discovered about this initial period of FCOI and the films they made in 1916, not least their November 1916 distribution deal with Davison’s Film Sales Agency and the patterns of exhibition in Britain. Let this attempt to bring together some of the newspaper and trade journal sources mark a start of that more complete account.

References

“All-Irish Films.” Bioscope 28 Sep. 1916: 1285.

“Back from Kerry: New Films Produced by Irish Company.” Evening Herald 5 Sep. 1916: 2.

“Bioscope Parliament.” Bioscope 2 Mar. 1916: 967-68.

“Condensed Film Critiques.” Bioscope 14 Dec. 1916: i; 21 Dec. 1916: iii; 28 Dec. 1916: i.

“Film Company of Ireland: Church Debt Wiped Out.” Kerry News 6 Sep. 1916: 4.

Gifford, Denis. The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1, Fiction Film, 1895-1994. 3rd ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

“Gossip of the Day.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1917: 2.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

New Irish Film.” Evening Herald 1 Dec. 1916: 3.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“Notes on News.” Kerry News 1 Sep. 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Nov. 1915: 841; 17 Feb. 1916: 717; 24 Feb. 1916: 812; 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 11 Jan. 1917: 194.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films, 1896-1996. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“What’s on in Dublin Next Week.” Evening Herald 23 Sep. 1916: 2.

“With the Film Co. of Ireland: A Day with the Producers.” Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 10-11.